The elites of Pueblo Bonito

Ruins of Pueblo Bonito

In my recent travels in the Southwest, I visited Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, site of the most complex and astonishing pre-Columbian civilization in North America.  My guide was Tori Myers, an archaeologist from nearby Salmon Ruin (whom I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wishing to decode in person the puzzle that is Chaco Canyon).  She shared what little is known of the people who built the place, and offered some educated speculation to fill in the cracks.

I had just finished writing a long chapter for the re-publication of The Revolt of the Public.  My head was buzzing with odd thoughts about the fate of our elite class.  Maybe for this reason, the story Tori told about Chaco sounded almost like a warning:  an object lesson.  Though I’m pretty sure history never works that way, I’m inclined to tell the tale anyhow – with the understanding that whatever is correct in what follows pertains to my wise guide, and whatever is just-so or fanciful or plain wrong is, as should be expected, entirely my doing.

Take it as a reconstruction of (pre)history or as a parable of social failure – either way, food for thought.


The people who built Chaco Canyon are often called Anasazi – as with so much today, the name is politically controversial.  Their cultural footprint covered an enormous area of the Four Corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.  There are Anasazi sites near Albuquerque and on the Grand Canyon:  that’s a 320-mile jog.  Between 900 and 1300 AD, this far-flung people pulled off the first monumental construction program on American soil.

The beating heart of Anasazi culture was Chaco Canyon, which is dotted with a multitude of “great houses” – really walled, beehive-like settlements erected in the local sandstone.  The greatest of the great houses is the subject of my story:  Pueblo Bonito.  It holds over 800 perfectly aligned stone rooms stacked as high as five stories, dozens of ceremonial and community structures, and a large open plaza within the walled enclosure.  Population must have exceeded 1,000.  Pueblo Bonito was a huge stone village, the largest of many at Chaco.

Only when you stand in the desolate landscape does the strangeness of Chaco as a site, and the magnitude of the builders’ achievement, become apparent.  The prehistoric environment was much like today’s:  grit and sagebrush, with weather prone to extremes.  On the day we were there, in late April, a windstorm pounded us like a hammer.  Later, it snowed.  Shoved tight under the north wall of the canyon, Pueblo Bonito must have endured sizzling summers, frost-bound winters, frequent drought, and terrifying rockfalls.  Except for stone, few resources were readily available.  Water was scarce.  The big timbers needed to support five-story structures were brought from 50 miles away, on the backs of strong men – the Anasazi had no wheeled carts or beasts of burden.  Pottery was imported, and so, I suspect, was food in the many bad years.

So how could such an unforgiving place become central to a civilization that built for the ages, laid down roads through the wilderness in every direction, and traded luxury goods as far away as Mexico and the Pacific coast?  The answer leaps out once we are willing to put aside the multicultural illusions of the moment.

The distribution of gifts across peoples in history, alas, has never been equal – and the elite class of Pueblo Bonito was gifted with extraordinary genius.  Engineers, architects, mathematicians, astronomers, masons, and craftsmen all worked at the highest possible levels of achievement.  The thick walls of Pueblo Bonito rose and turned with straight-edged precision.  The stones were dressed to beautiful effect.  Structures aligned meticulously with cosmic forces.  One long wall followed an 18-year cycle of the moon – a remarkable feat of cultural memory for a people who lacked writing and whose life expectancy for men was 35 years (for women it was 24).

The massive ruins of Chaco Canyon reminded the modern Americans who first encountered them of the Aztecs.  Given their love of clean straight lines, symmetry, and order, and their penchant for monumentality, a more apt parallel to the Anasazi, I think, would be the old Romans.  Like the Roman colony, Pueblo Bonito was built to a plan.

Someone had to know and implement the plan.  Someone had to make the decisions that kept Pueblo Bonito safe and fed while the timber was being cut, the mortar mixed, and the stones dressed and arrayed.  The genius of the builders extended to organization:  to government.  The elites of Pueblo Bonito must have been a class apart.

As might be expected, this, too, is controversial.  The Pueblo Indians, who descend from the Anasazi but dislike the name, portray themselves as extreme egalitarians.  They reject the notion that their great-grandparents might have been bossed around by aristocrats.  However worthy the sentiment, the evidence runs in the other direction.  The body of a man was discovered under a room in Pueblo Bonito, wrapped in a splendid cape of macaw feathers.  Since macaws had to be imported, with some care, from Mexico, this was a personage of some importance.  Other graves have been found outside the rooms and without goods.  These were people of little importance.

You can’t run a complex matrix of activities on a thin resource base without giving someone the power to make invidious choices.  A brilliant few must have given orders – most obeyed.  I imagine that at Pueblo Bonito, as with us, those who labored with their hands – farmers, construction grunts – were at the bottom of the pyramid, while those with specialized knowledge stood at the top.  Still, I wouldn’t make too much of this.  Pueblo Bonito was a privileged enclave.  The people at the bottom probably felt superior to all outside the walls, much as a Roman plebeian, by virtue of being a citizen, considered himself above the most exalted barbarian lord.

The bonds of solidarity were strengthened by ceremonies at the “great kiva”:  an enormous circular structure roofed with heavy timbers, capable of containing much of the male population.  In the great kiva, the elites of Pueblo Bonito probably had a place of honor, but everyone sang and danced to the same tune.

Late in the life-cycle of the village came the first event crucial to my story.  An internal wall was built across the settlement.  It was a typical Pueblo Bonito wall:  arrow-straight, beautifully dressed, touching the outer wall north to south.  Careful scholars have speculated on the purpose of this structure, but to me it seems perfectly obvious.  The elites wanted to separate themselves from the riff-raff.  Their sense of symmetry and order now extended to social proximity.  In effect, they had moved into a gated community.

At the same time, the great kiva was demolished.  Two smaller great kivas were built:  one on each side of the wall.  You can almost hear the gloriously-robed architect telling his laborers, “We’re not better.  We’re different.  We need a little more space.  And look!  You get your own great kiva!  Works out for everyone, right?”

The new arrangement may have been an ideological response to a system driven into crisis by persistent drought.

For an aristocracy or oligarchy to endure, it must engender strong feelings of class loyalty.  Otherwise those at the highest levels will be tempted to push everyone below into the ranks of the deplorables.  The latter is precisely what happened at Pueblo Bonito.  The nearness of rude humanity on the other side of the wall was clearly felt to be unbearable.  Physical separation had to be commensurate with the immense social distance between the golden few and the bestial many.  In parallel, the definition of who belonged with the elites was made far more restrictive.  Former members in good standing of the upper crust were taken down – and out.  The club at the top became impossibly small.

In the final act of my story, virtually the entire population has been pushed out of Pueblo Bonito.  The evidence suggests that they weren’t cast into the cold.  At this time, despite the drought, feverish building projects were undertaken in nearby Chetro Ketl and Pueblo del Arroyo.  It’s reasonable to suppose that the new construction absorbed the outflow of plebeians from Pueblo Bonito.  Again, one can imagine some exalted being saying to the departing peasantry, “You’ll be happy living with your Aunt Millie – you like her so much!  And it’s not like you’re never coming back.  We’ll invite you to all the parties…”

The handful of families that remained in Pueblo Bonito, super-elites all, turned the place into a ceremonial center.  These people had achieved their ideal of complete social separation.  They were a vanguard that no one followed, monarchs that ruled over a great human silence.  Their exceptional talents were applied to hosting elaborate feasts, in which people from all over brought them offerings in exchange for something:  spiritual enlightenment, possibly, or knowledge, or maybe just prestige.  The last gift of the elites of Pueblo Bonito has been lost to the blind night of prehistory.  Certainly, there was no more building to be done – no more straight walls or cosmic alignments.  There was no need.

For a generation or two, they lived the high life.  Then the stone village was abandoned to the mule deer, the rodents, and the wind.

Drought is usually blamed for the demise of the Anasazi.  In the case of Pueblo Bonito, I believe there may have been an additional factor:  an elite class of world-historical genius that came to think its purpose was to be, rather than to do.  When the crisis arrived, elite ingenuity had turned to sterile ends, and could not forestall disaster.

A fatal love of order…

Posted in cataclysm | 12 Comments

The schizoid presidency of Donald Trump

The Curious Schism Between Trump and Trump

How is one to think of a president who is unfit for office in his rhetoric and presentation yet mainstream in his policies and actions?

I speak, of course, of Donald Trump.  Who doesn’t?  As an impossibility come true, the president offers a cosmic riddle to any analyst worth his salt.

Let me specify what I mean by “unfit for office.”  I don’t mean that he has committed high crimes and ought to be impeached.  I mean, rather, that at the time of his election candidate Trump was appallingly inexperienced in every qualification for the presidency.  He also seemed ignorant of our history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, and impulsive and irresponsible in his interactions with the world.

All these terms characterize President Trump’s rhetorical style – and so, one would think, the man.  In manner and attitude, his communications tend to float on the shallow waters of the news cycle and the social media shitstorm, untethered to precedent.  In substance, the president’s rhetoric often relies on propositions that are false, offensive, thoughtless, and framed to incite a strong reaction rather than to explain or persuade.  The two drivers of Trump utterances seem to be an insatiable hunger for attention and the itch to get even with anyone who has criticized him.

I take it for granted that the evidence in support of this characterization is vast and redundant, and makes citing cases unnecessary.

From the first, however, I nursed a suspicion that Trump-in-action seemed like a much less outlandish character than Trump-in-words.  We now have 12 months of incumbency behind us.  The evidence on this, too, is clear.  The actions and policies of the Trump administration are little different from what, say, a Ted Cruz or even a Jeb Bush administration would have implemented.  From a Republican and conservative perspective, such actions and policies appear to be perfectly mainstream.

The Grudging Evidence of NeverTrump Conservatives

In what follows, I am not endorsing or “resisting” Donald Trump.  I’m performing analysis.  I want to compare the president’s policies to his rhetoric, on the one hand, and to mainstream Republican and conservative ideas on the other.  Note that I’m also not endorsing or resisting these ideas.  What I’m after is a thesis that explains how a president can be rhetorically unfit for office yet mainstream in his policies.  Finally, I’ll try to make sense of it all from the larger perspective of the revolt of the public.

If style really is the man, it’s difficult to see how the rhetorical failings that make Trump unfit for office – ignorance, impulsiveness, love of the limelight – would not spill over, disastrously, to his policy decisions.  Mostly, that hasn’t happened.  From immigration to tax reform, from his judicial appointments to his anti-regulation zeal, the president has followed prescriptions habitually endorsed by Republicans and conservatives before him.

Much the same can be said of foreign policy.  Except for a slight tilt to protectionism, the Trump way on, say, NATO and the UN, or China and Afghanistan, adheres pretty closely to regular Republican practice.  He has been less interventionist than George W. Bush but more aggressive – with ISIS, Iran, and North Korea, for example – than Barack Obama.  And for all the conspiracy theories, he may well be tougher on Russia than his immediate predecessor.

The schism between person and policy is reflected in the grudging acknowledgements of “NeverTrump” conservatives, who despise the man’s character.  Noah Rothman has written of the “damage done by Trump’s big mouth,” yet accepts that the president is governing “not as a populist firebrand but a conventional Republican.” Ross Douthat observes with some surprise that the administration’s Middle East policy is “close to what I would have hoped for from a normal Republican president.”  Yet another member of the NeverTrump tribe, Rich Lowry, concedes:  “It’s hard to see how a conventional Republican president would have done much better.”

The words “normal” and “conventional” are never, ever used to characterize Donald Trump the man – not by anyone, of any persuasion.  Yet, in a conservative, Republican context, they keep cropping up with regard to his policies.  It’s the political version of William James‘ “divided self.”

So what’s going on?

The Theory That Trump Is Really What He Appears To Be

One explanation may be that President Trump and his unfit rhetoric have been squeezed into a mainstream straightjacket by the institutions of the Federal government.  On this account, a combination of reality and institutional pressure has compelled an outlandish character into conventional policy behavior – “malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one anti-Trump commentator phrased it.

The thesis has a shred of truth to it.  Ferocious opposition to the president’s policies has inspired a constant stream of legal challenges.  Some of these have been successful, forcing the administration into a more cautious, conventional approach.  The fate of the first travel ban is a case in point

However, I believe this explanation rests on flawed assumptions.  It also begs the big question.  If an ignorant, irresponsible president can appoint competent, responsible officials who steer him toward mainstream policies, we are back to our original dilemma:  how is this possible?  If an unfit character can recognize reality and adapt his actions to it – if pressure produces moderation rather than delusion or aggression – then the explanation, let me suggest, is itself in need of explaining.

Another possibility is that Trump is only interested in rhetoric and presentation, and leaves the actual business of governing to others.  But this retains many of the contradictions of the straightjacket thesis, and smacks of a cheap shot besides.  Everything wrong or outrageous can be blamed on Trump, and nothing successful or normal can be credited to him.  No doubt, this is possible.  Certainly, it’s attractive to the feverishly partisan anti-Trump camp.  But the evidence, in my opinion, points in the opposite direction.  One of the president’s least attractive traits is his constant public berating of his own people.  For better or worse, he seems engaged in government.

Because of the tremendous polarizing power of Donald Trump’s personality, the simplest explanation may be hardest to accept.  Suppose that the president’s predilections in policy run, in fact, toward the mainstream.  Suppose his rhetorical gift is to frame these mainstream positions in outrageous, irresponsible language.  Once again we must ask how this is possible – but now the answer leaps out of the record at us.  Instead of “control the borders,” you say “build a wall and send the president of Mexico the check.”  Instead of “protect against Islamist violence,” you say “Muslim ban.”  Examples, I imagine, can be multiplied at some length.

Call it the Mannerist Theory of Trump:  nothing proposed is particularly outrageous for a conservative or a Republican – but the manner of proposing it is.

The implications are interesting.  That strange shadowy figure, the populist, would come into focus as the embodiment of a political style rather than a set of policy choices.  The populist is whoever tramples on elite proprieties, tastes, and taboos, without regard for ideology.  We should not be surprised, then, to find that one sort of populist is also a Marxist (Alexis Tsipras of Greece), while another is a right-wing nationalist (Hungary’s Viktor Orban).

I find the theory plausible, on the evidence.  It moves the question about Trump’s schizoid style of governance from the how to the why.  To answer this second puzzle, we must look beyond the buzz of US politics to that global uprising against the institutions and elites, of which Donald Trump is both a product and a vector.

How the Trump Style Surfs the Zeitgeist

The revolt of the public is no longer a new or startling development.  Everywhere, patterns of action and reaction have hardened to an almost ritual precision.  The public has been mobilized by the force of its negations and the repudiation of the status quo, while remaining uninterested in a positive program of reform.  Because the impulse to revolt was born in the turbulent digital universe, it has inherited the style peculiar to the web.  Rather than deal in finely-tuned arguments or meticulously researched studies, the public prefers the language of outrage.  It speaks in rant.

Trump’s character and rhetorical style appear remarkably in tune with this environment.  He has attacked the political and media elites – naming names – without restraint.  He perceives only his own side to every question, and hurls crude insults at those with different perspectives.  He plays fast and loose with the truth – all that matters is settling scores and winning the argument.  He tweets impulsively, compulsively, first president to place social media at the heart of his rhetorical arsenal.

Many of the qualities that make Trump seemingly unfit for the presidency in fact increase his attractiveness as a weapon in the hands of a mutinous public:  his utter lack of experience, for example, his disdain for history and tradition, even his vulgarity.  The people who voted for Trump expect him to humble the elites and break a lot of institutional crockery in the process.  They demand different.

In this context, a preference for mainstream policies becomes a liability.

The Sectarian Dilemma and the Question of Fitness

Politicians swept into office by the anti-establishment flood face an immediate dilemma.  Once in government, they can continue to smash away at the institutions – but this will damage the economy and consequently their popularity.  Alternatively, they can move to the mainstream and compromise with the elites – but this will damage their credibility and alienate their base of support.  Few have found a way out of the labyrinth.  Alexis Tsipras, to cite one example, tried each approach in turn and failed at both.

Barack Obama evaded the dilemma by removing himself rhetorically an immense distance from the government over which he presided.  He felt free to condemn and repudiate the evils of the system, such as economic inequality, while accepting no responsibility for ending them.  (That the former president’s personal success did not extend to his governing coalition or the Democratic Party suggests that the forces of negation exacted their punishment nonetheless.)

The bizarre schizoid style of the Trump administration becomes intelligible as an attempt to escape this dilemma.  Elected as an agent of negation, President Trump must now promote positive policies and programs.  Any direction he takes will alienate some of his supporters, who were bound together largely on the strength of their repudiations.  A predilection for the mainstream will alienate most of them.

Against this background, the loud and vulgar sound of the president’s voice becomes the signal for a mustering of the political war-bands.  The subject at hand is often elite behavior unrelated to policy:  “fake news” in the media, say, or an NFL star kneeling during the National Anthem.  Those who oppose Trump can’t resist the lure of outrage.  Their responses tend to be no less loud or vulgar, and are sometimes more violent, than the offending message.  Groups on the other side of the spectrum, now stoked to full-throated rant mode, rally reflexively to the president’s defense.

I have described this process elsewhere.  It’s a zero-sum struggle for attention that rewards the most immoderate voices – and, without question, Donald Trump is a master of the game.  His unbridled language mobilizes his anti-elite followers, even as his policies appeal to more conventional Republicans and conservatives.

The political risks, I would think, are extreme.  Trump was never a popular candidate.  He is not a popular president.  To retain his base, he must provoke his opposition into a frenzy of loathing and condemnation.  Many Americans of all denominations still expect the chief executive to behave with a minimum of decorum.  That’s unlikely to happen in this administration.  The maneuvers performed by the president resemble a high-wire act without a net:  one false step and the game is over.

The question I first posed was what to make of a president who is rhetorically unfit yet mainstream in policy.  The answer very much depends on one’s perspective.  Mine is that of a simple defender of liberal democracy – of the “system” now under attack along so many fronts by so many angry factions.

Among the latter the opinion can be found that President Trump’s verbal aggressions make him a new Hitler or a new Mussolini – certainly an “aspiring dictator” of some sort.  To the extent that the Mannerist Theory holds true, he can’t be any of these things.  In one avatar, instead, he is a totally mainstream policy-maker.  In another, he’s a man propelled to the heights by forces he neither controls nor understands, which at any moment may fling him down to earth again.

Words have an impact, however.  The nihilist style of social media, when wielded by the president, is destructive of trust in government and makes a mockery of democratic debate.  Basic principles of liberal democracy are sometimes trashed by the extravagant rhetoric.  To the extent that this throws open the doors of legitimacy to truly anti-democratic players – nihilists in action as well as words – I would consider Donald Trump an unworthy successor to Washington and Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan.


Posted in democracy, the public | 10 Comments

Video: My presentation

For those who prefer image to text, here is the video of my presentation to the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference on “Crises of Democracy” at Bard College.

Posted in democracy, the public | 1 Comment

The Other at Bard College

Marc Jongen of Alternative for Germany

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, New York, recently sponsored a conference on “Crises of Democracy:  Thinking in Dark Times.”  I attended as a presenter, but stayed on for the entire two-day affair.  Discussions were lively and free-flowing, particularly in comparison with the usual boilerplate churned out at academic conferences.

As might be expected in that setting, most of the presenters leaned left.  To cite just one example:  Micah White, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, talked about his experience with radical politics.  White stated that his goal was “revolution,” though he conceded that the legacy of “the twentieth century” made that an improbable hope.

Since I had researched OWS for my book, I found White’s presentation fascinating.

The head of the Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz, labored mightily to diversify the conceptual range of the speakers at the conference.  As part of this effort, he invited Marc Jongen, prominent member of “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), a political party invariably characterized by the media as “populist” and “far right.”  With 13 percent of the vote in recent elections, AfD has become the third largest party in Germany.  It’s a new and imponderable force – from my perspective, a carrier of the revolt of the public.

In his presentation, Jongen sought to equate populism with popular consent.  He portrayed Angela Merkel, Germany’s eternal chancellor, as an aloof and arbitrary ruler.  Two issues seemed to be of abiding importance to the AfD:  spending German money to prop up weak EU economies like Greece’s, and inviting a million Muslim refugees into the country.  On neither question, Jongen contended, had German public opinion been consulted.  The Merkel government had simply imposed its will, under the mantra “there is no alternative.”

Jongen made politically incorrect statements about the cultural differences between Arab Muslims and Germans.  He associated the immigrants with an increase in crime, and said the German public had been “traumatized” by their sudden arrival.  But he was thoughtful and measured in both tone and content.  His responses to aggressive questioning acknowledged the validity of other points of view.  I have no idea how accurately he described AfD’s positions, but nothing Jongen said at Bard sounded to the right of Donald Trump.

Unknown to me, I was witnessing a controversy.  A large group of academics not only disagreed vehemently with Jongen’s opinions, but had condemned Berkowitz and the Arendt Center for allowing them to be voiced.


This angry band of Ph. D.’s initially put pressure on Bard College to un-invite Jongen.  When that failed, they published an “Open Letter” in the Chronicles of Higher Education to protest the event.  It was signed by 56 academics.

Their argument seemed to be that Marc Jongen and his ilk must never be allowed to speak in respectable society, because this would “legitimize and normalize” his “far-right,” “racist and xenophobic” views.  Jongen should be placed in the intellectual equivalent of solitary confinement.  By bringing him out in the open, Berkowitz and the Arendt Center had created a “direct threat” to the “plurality” they claimed to espouse.  So said the protesting professors.

The theory that a political debate can only be won by silence should sound strange in the mouths of people who toil in the realm of ideas.  Alas, it isn’t strange at all.  I have a friend who compares his academic work today to “a mine-clearing operation”:  at any moment, you might step on a hidden sensitivity and blow up.  The once-rowdy American university has become a place of conformism and fear.

But even on its own terms, the “Open Letter” makes little sense to me.  The AfD received six million votes.  It’s already a legitimate political organization in Germany.  To say otherwise is to deny the democratic principle.  If the party really presents a threat to plurality, its ideas should be confronted and exposed.  That was Berkowitz’s intent in inviting Jongen.  To place a ban on AfD representatives in academic conferences will not add or subtract to their legitimacy, any more than inviting Micah White added or subtracted to the legitimacy of his nostalgia for revolution.  On the other hand, such a ban would deny conference attendees the opportunity to measure and criticize, face to face, the extent of any threat to democracy or plurality from AfD.

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, who also spoke at the conference, dismisses with some contempt the legitimacy of AfD’s vote and rejects any implication of censorship in the call to disinvite Jongen.  What matters for Gessen isn’t so much legitimacy or democracy.  It’s ideology.  She equates Jongen with Trump, and makes it clear that neither should ever be allowed to speak in the polite circles of academia.

The controversy had nothing to do with censorship – that’s certainly true.  Jongen is free to speak his mind from any number of platforms.  But Gessen appears to believe that by invoking the potent taboo “far right,” she has made an argument that places Berkowitz and the Arendt Center in the position of having to offer special reasons for inviting Jongen.  The reverse is in fact the case.  Gessen and the “Open Letter” signers have an obligation to show why, in a freewheeling conference on the travails of democracy, a significant slice of the ideological spectrum should be denied a voice.

Gessen praises the stature of the professors who signed the letter.  No doubt they are excellent scholars and people of good will.  However, “This political opinion will never be spoken among us” is a dangerous rhetorical weapon even in such worthy hands.  Wielded by lesser creatures, it has, historically, emboldened the enemies of democracy.


At the conference I heard discussion of white privilege and the demonization of the Other in US society.  Inclusiveness and tolerance, in that largely liberal crowd, were the primary virtues of politics.  But “the Other” in every instance meant a certain stereotype of victimhood with which the speaker was very comfortable.  The Other, so conceived, represented respectable diversity.

Jongen said distasteful things about Muslims and immigration.  His opinions – his very existence – made sensitive spirits uneasy.  He was “far right”:  the Other at Bard.  I note that members of the audience there handled it just fine.  They asked tough questions and elicited interesting answers.  But for the 56 signers of the “Open Letter” and their allies like Gessen, that was not enough.  Jongen, that rough beast, must be banished to the nether regions before he can reach Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Berkowitz had his way.  He was supported by Bard’s remarkable president, Leon Botstein, who found the “self-righteous stand of the signatories” to have “a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era” – an allusion that scandalized the anti-Jongen professors.  (Gessen, born in Russia, devoted a full paragraph to explaining what totalitarianism really means.)

So Marc Jongen, of the AfD, spoke at Bard College under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center.  “What Jongen said had been said before, and could have been discussed in his absence,” Gessen complained – but this is true of every presenter at every conference since the world began.  I learned something from the encounter, at any rate.  Possibly, others did as well.

In a real sense, it was a victory for intellectual openness over the dogmatic impulse and fear of taboo.  The whole affair nonetheless felt more like pathology than politics:  another psychotic episode in the strange ongoing breakdown of the American mind.

Posted in democracy | 3 Comments

My talk at Bard: “Democracy in Dark Times” and the revolt of the public

 [Below is the text and slides of the presentation I delivered October 12 at Bard College, New York, at the invitation of Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard’s Hanna Arendt Center.  The occasion was a conference on “Crises of Democracy:  Thinking in Dark Times,” hosted by the Center.  I have invoked the author’s privilege of refining the text to make myself sound more articulate than I really was.  I have also inserted links to the quotes whenever possible.]

My subject is the tectonic collision between a networked public and the old hierarchical institutions we have inherited from the industrial age.

I worked in the corner of CIA that studies global media.  There, around the turn of the new millennium, my fellow analysts and I watched a tsunami of digital information swell and build and then crash over the landscape, leaving little untouched. At first we were mesmerized by the sheer volume of the thing.  The sum of human information, which since the days of the cave paintings had grown in a stately, incremental manner, was now roughly doubling every year.

But it was the effects of the tsunami that mattered.  Human relations were being transformed:  social and commercial relations first of all, but in time, and in consequence, power relations as well.  We could see fierce old dictatorships losing control over their own stories.  A surprising number of them collapsed.  Democratic governments became terrified of the public, and with good reason.  The wave of information resembled an acid bath of negation.

Information, it turned out, has authority in proportion to its scarcity – the more there is, the less people believe.  That is the theme of my story today.


So what do I mean by authority, and why is it in crisis?  Before we get to the revolt of the public, let’s reflect on its target:  the old dispensation.

For around 150 years, authority resided in the great institutions of the industrial world:  modern government, of course, but also the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media, the scientific establishment.  The elites who mediated between these institutions and the public were the keepers of truth and certainty.

How was this possible?  Well, first of all, no alternatives existed.  Each institution held a semi-monopoly over the information in its own domain.  When Walter Cronkite, face and voice of a great institution, CBS News, told us “That’s the way it is,” we had no way of falsifying him.

Now, the human race has been organized hierarchically since we attained meaningful numbers.  The industrial mind just made the pyramid bigger, steeper, and more efficient.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the great prophets of industrialism.  He preached “scientific management,” and that has always been the mantra of the industrial elites:  that they are scientific.  Their authority is derived from esoteric knowledge that the public lacks.  In Taylor’s system, that knowledge justified control over every step of the manufacturing process.  His ideal worker was a sort of robot programed from the top.

Politics followed a parallel path.  In the great mass movements and totalitarian dictatorships that arose after the First World War, the individual disappeared into the masses.  Democratic governments became both more intrusive and more remote.  Policy-making devolved to a class of experts with Taylorist pretensions and utopian ambitions.

Politicians made, and make to this day, extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can command the transactional swirl of the modern economy, for example, or engineer social equality, or win a “war” against poverty (or crime, or drugs, or cancer).  Juscelino Kubitschek, democratically elected president of Brazil, promised to compress “fifty years of progress in five” by building Brasilia – that hyper-modern City of Man.

The reality is that democratic governments have been pounding away at the same projects for over a century.  We know by now what they can do well and what they can’t.  They can build highway systems and they can eradicate contagious disease.  But they can’t fix whatever is broken in the human animal.  They can’t deliver utopia.  Whenever they tried, they failed.

Brasilia failed to deliver 50 years of progress in five. The wars against social conditions such as poverty and crime ended with the enemy standing pretty much where he had been when hostilities began.  Most of the grandiose projects of the 20th century failed on their own terms – but the story told about these efforts wasn’t one of hubris and failure, but of a soaring ambition to improve the human lot, of reaching for the stars.

So long as the elites held the commanding heights of information and communication, they were the only authority in town.  Once the tsunami fractured that monopoly, the elites as a class, their authority, and the institutions they managed, all lapsed into crisis.


The forces that swept away the old dispensation came almost entirely from below.  They represented the voice of the gifted amateur, of the articulate non-elites.  In terms of institutional standing, the individuals responsible were often insignificant persons – people from nowhere.  Shawn Fanning was 18, an unknown kid, when he released the first version of Napster in June 1999.  The shock of that beta release sent a mighty institution, the music industry, into a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.

Hossein Derakhshan, better known by his blogname, Hoder, was an ordinary Iranian twenty-something who, in September 2001, succeeded in adapting blogging software to the requirements of Farsi script.

The consequences were remarkable.  Tens of thousands of Farsi-language blogs materialized in Iran.  Many commented on political news, advocated feminism, criticized the corruption of regime officials.  Poor Hoder spent six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities” of the Islamic Republic.

Wael Ghonim described himself as “an ordinary Egyptian,” and so he was in many ways.  He created a Facebook page and, in the form of a Facebook Event invitation, called for the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  Over a million Facebook users viewed the invitation.  Around 100,000 said they would attend.

Ghonim was thrown in prison during the protests, then was released and negotiated with by government ministers who clearly believed he was an important revolutionary leader.  Symbolically, that was true.  He embodied the tsunami.  But empirically he was a political nobody whose claim to fame was that he administered a Facebook page.


With Wael Ghonim and his kind, we come to the hero of my story – or maybe the anti-hero, depending on your perspective.  What is the public, and why – if I may quote old Mel Brooks – is it revolting?

First, let’s specify what the public is not.  It isn’t the people, or the masses, or the crowd.  It isn’t a fixed body of any kind.  It isn’t even one – it’s many.  I should rightly say “publics” – but that sounds terrible, so I don’t.

The public was formed by the dissolution of the industrial masses and their migration away from the center toward vital communities that represented their true interests and obsessions all along.  In many cases, the journey has led to distant islands of personal identity.  Information has been the catalyst – the perturbing agent – in this process.  The tsunami is really the public, asserting its opinions and tastes.

Digital platforms provide the public with its organizational form:  the network.  Nothing within the bounds of human nature could be less like hierarchy.  Digital networks are egalitarian to the brink of dysfunction.

Walter Lippmann, whose definition I used, tells us that the public is “merely the persons interested in an affair.”  That affair can be trivial – cute cats, Taylor Swift, Star Wars.  But when the public engages in politics, it’s to promote some specific cause, to right a specific wrong, to tag some specific event or person or policy with the correct modifiers.

Online political communities were spawned by the traditional right and left, but are not interested in working out coherent ideologies.  They care, passionately and obsessively, about their particular affair.  Anti-globalists, for example, care about the tyranny of corporations.  Anarchists and libertarians care about the tyranny of government.  Neither imagines that they are espousing a system of ideas that might be opposed by a different system of ideas. They think that they know truth, and that their opponents must therefore be liars and cheats.

These groups are born in negation – friction with the status quo brings them into being, and they exist to attack, condemn, repudiate.  Negation binds a network and transforms it into a political force.  You stand against Mubarak, for example, or Obama, or capitalism.  Once the oppositional impulse is spent, there’s very little left.  If you asked an indignado or an Occupier or a Tea Partier what they stood against, you would get long, long lists of grievances.  If you asked what they stood for, you’d get throat-clearing noises and generalities like “social justice” or “the Constitution.”

Any form of organization, of command and control, is offensive to the egalitarian spirit of the web. Digital networks resemble barbarian war bands that roam the political landscape looking to win honor and fame in heroic combat with the enemy.  The weird dynamics of the web makes verbal violence – ritual rage – the only acceptable rhetorical posture.  Every political controversy ends in personal abuse and death threats.

Extreme actors on opposite sides rejoice in finding each other.  They can engage in loud and vicious combat, attract attention, drown out moderate voices.  There’s perverse satisfaction, almost happiness, when the people you oppose perpetrate some horror.  It proves beyond reasonable doubt that they should not be allowed to exist.

The public has bought into the exaggerated claims of competence of the politicians.  This is very strange, very central to our predicament.  Even as the public repudiates modern government, it imposes fantastic expectations on it.  On the one hand, government is the instrument of self-serving elites.  On the other, it must deliver not only social justice and freedom but personal fulfillment and even identity.  Political failure – which, given the expectations, is inevitable – evokes intensely personal feelings of injury and anger.

Mind you, the carriers of this anger rarely belong to marginalized groups.  They tend to be young, university educated, highly articulate, owners of digital devices, masters of the information sphere.  Their rage, in fact, is informational:  Facebook and YouTube and Twitter torment them with a world full of unbearable things.

The web exists in a state of nature. Things are said and done there just because they can be said and done.  A great deal of hypocrisy is therefore baked into those political communities that are born online.  The rage is mostly rhetorical.  The death threats are mostly a grab for attention through outrageous behavior.  But when negation and repudiation play the part of ideology, when rage, stoked to the max, is the default rhetorical posture, when attention is the highest value and is earned by the intensity with which opponents are demonized – then we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals cross the hazy frontier between the virtual and the real, materialize among us, and begin to shed blood.

The two nice-looking young men on the slide, between them, murdered 126 innocent strangers and wounded and maimed many more.  They represent the nihilist:  the public as destroyer of worlds.

The question has been posed at this conference whether we are witnessing the rise of authoritarian or fascist governments.  Among the old democracies at least, I believe the opposite is closer to the truth.  Democratic governments are terrified of the public’s unhappiness.  They know that heroic actions are expected of them, but also that every initiative will be savaged and every failure amplified.  Their behavior is the opposite of authoritarian.  It’s a drift to dysfunction:  to paralysis.

Yes, there are Nazis among us.  They are one byproduct of the public’s escape to sectarian islands of identity.  These people with their tikki torches look pretty amusing – but they are no joke.  One of their number, all of 20 years of age, plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and hurting many others.  So far as is known, the perpetrator wasn’t acting on orders from his fuehrer or from anyone else.  He acted on an impulse:  the impulse to kill and to destroy.  Given our structural realities, I don’t worry too much about the authoritarian or the fascist.  I worry about that young man:  about the nihilist who believes, with passionate intensity, that destruction and slaughter are by themselves a form of progress.

And maybe we should all worry whether the nihilist impulse has gained a broad enough acceptance with the public to make itself felt in the highest reaches of power.


Donald Trump has been good to me.  He has sold a lot of copies of my book.  Still, I suspect he’s the reason we’re here, talking about democracy in dark times.  Hillary Clinton may be the very model of an entitled elite – but if she had won, few here, I’m guessing, would have had cause to raise apocalyptic political scenarios.

Why?  What’s so terrifying about Trump?  Well, he’s Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s Hitler.  He’s Mussolini or maybe Augusto Pinochet.  These things have been said.  Allow me to take a somewhat more analytical approach.  I see Trump as an episode in the revolt of the public.  Only in that context, I believe, could such a strange figure rise so far so fast.

Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of US politics.  The one discernible theme of his life is the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there.  No question that he’s succeeded.  By every measure I have seen, Trump sucks up our attention to a staggering degree.  He’s less Adolf Hitler and more P.T. Barnum – only the circus is himself.  This aligns him with a public that often confuses personal fantasies with practical politics.

Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web.  That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack.  His opponents speak in jargon and clichés.  He speaks in rant.  He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes.  Everyone he dislikes is a liar, a “bimbo,” “bought and paid for,” the equivalent of a child molester.  Ian Buruma has written that this sort of abuse is “what aspiring dictators have sought to do.”  But dictators don’t deal in tweets.  Trump is in the style of our moment:  a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.

Rhetorical aggression defines the political web.  By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the fragile forms of American democracy.

I want to leave you with a question:  what I call the cosmic Trump question.

Imagine a world in which an insignificant person with a talent for self-promotion decides to enter an election because all the cameras are there, with no thought of winning, and is catapulted to the presidency by historical forces over which he has no control, and which he does not in the least understand.  What follows?

Well, if you think Trump is Hitler, you can relax.  He’s not.  You can quit the resistance and go to the ballpark.  Trump doesn’t need your help to fail.

But if you’re me, tracking the trajectory of this structural conflict between political elites who are bleeding authority and a public that is stuck in negation – if you’re me, you worry that in a few years we might look back on these dark times and think of Trump as the good old days…

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The web as school of manners: a beatific vision

John Perry Barlow

What is the school of manners of the rising generation?  There can be no doubt about that.  It’s the web.  Physically, we are still encased in the formalities of the industrial age.  But these are empty gestures:  meaningless rituals muttered in a dead tongue.  Like all forms devoid of substance, they are passing away unnoticed and unmourned.

Fifty years ago the boss wore a suit, white shirt, and a necktie.  His name was “Mr. Smith.”  He lurked in a large, frightening office, like the school principal.  To be summoned there was cause for existential anguish.  Today men in suits are considered at best inauthentic, at worst outright scoundrels – lawyers, probably, or politicians.  The boss is really a “team lead,” may sport tattoos and piercings, and wants to be called “Tiffany.”

The web flattens and equalizes.  Everyone appears to stand in a similar relation to everyone else, everywhere.  That is an optical illusion, but it’s a powerful one, difficult to shake off.  And there’s a seed of truth at its core.  Relative to the top-down hierarchies we have inherited from an earlier time – to a corporation, for example, or a government agency, or a university – the web is an egalitarian space.

Early on, idealists saw in “Cyberspace” the promised land of liberation.  Without physical presence, there could be no tyranny or exploitation.  Existing relations of power and property would be erased upon entry, and all would share equitably in the dominion of mind and spirit.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks.  I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.  You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

[. . .] We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace…

With the cold clarity of hindsight, it would be easy to mock that beatific vision written 20 years ago.  Far more instructive, I think, would be to ask:  what if the vision had come true?  If the web, as a school of manners to a generation, had forged a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” what would it look like?


By “manners” I mean the outward expression of personal character.  Character itself I take to be some combination of habits and ideals solidified by experience.  Many today would argue that manners, so seemingly obsessed with placement of forks and accuracy of titles, is too trivial a subject to be worthy of attention.  What matters, these people hold, is that behavior remain true to the authentic inner person.

I will not enter into that debate.  Manners, for my purposes, will be considered to be the social forms assumed by individual humanity, regardless of what transpires in the depths.

What social behavior would be consistent with a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace”?  One aspect leaps out at once:  it’s free, and values freedom very highly.  John Perry Barlow, author of the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” cited above, claimed to speak with the authority of “liberty.”  He has broken loose from the “tyrannies” that oppress the physical world.  He speaks his mind.

But the freedom is of a specific kind.  It’s the freedom of hardy individualists who are exploring a vast undiscovered continent:  the freedom of the American frontier.  (Barlow became a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)  With so much room around them, cyber-citizens expect to be left alone.  They won’t tolerate a boss or the government telling them what to do or say online.  That will foster eccentricity, but personal beliefs, “no matter how singular,” will be tolerated and accepted.

A second kind of freedom is implied in the “Declaration” and spelled out in the catchphrase, “information wants to be free.”  A civilization of the Mind must make the products of the Mind freely available.  Copyright laws that award corporations the “intellectual property” of creative individuals are null and void on the web.  Music, TV shows, movies – the cyber-citizen is free to pay for them or pirate them, as he wishes.  Government secrets and decency bans also have no force online.  These are the tyrannies of the physical world.  It’s good manners to trample on them.

Cyberspace demands a radical willingness to share without charge one’s intellectual output, and allows whoever is interested to dabble with and modify that output.  To complain about pride or profit in authorship is bad manners.  Information wants to be free.  The model might be Wikipedia, the “free encyclopedia,” which claims over 31 million “registered users,” over 120,000 “active users,” and 1,262 “administrators,” all of whom write and edit “without pay.”  The utopian expectation, rarely stated, is that this approach will inspire an uninterrupted march towards the truth.

There’s no shame attached to making money, however.  Anyone on the cyber-frontier who develops a useful innovation deserves his profits.  Amazon and Google are much admired.  Both empowered customers at the expense of existing institutions, by moving transactions to the web.  Hostility is aimed at the hierarchies of brick and mortar, and the men in suits who act like institutional tools.  It’s crazy cool to work in Mountain View.  It’s a disgrace to work in Walls Street – or, for that matter, Bentonville.


Manners in our virtual civilization, then, would put on display a sturdy self-reliance, generosity in sharing, a volunteering spirit, appreciation of innovators, and an utter distrust of government, bureaucracies, financial institutions, “mainstream media,” and the whole array of power and wealth as structured by the industrial age.

A subject – one, in fact, that has come to permeate and dominate Cyberspace – is missing from the list.  Politics is missing.  The early techno-utopians were deeply interested in politics, though in a way that appears unsettled to the twenty-first century mind.  Barlow, for example, is usually labeled a “libertarian,” yet he was an active Republican for much of his life, while remaining a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and best friends with John F. Kennedy Jr.  No doubt he expected the political parties to make their case and raise funds online.  In chatrooms and blogs, cyber-citizens would debate the candidates as well as one another.  But all this seemed of secondary importance.

In the beatific vision of its founding fathers, Cyberspace was largely a liberation from politics.  Governments, those “weary giants of flesh and steel,” had become tyranny on an industrial scale.  They insisted on top-down control, and they existed to propagate that control to the most intimate aspects of life.  Cyberspace, too big and wide open for elections even to be possible, was conceived as a refuge of individual freedom.  Citizens would gather around communities of interest.  They would do their own thing, in their own style and language, and ignore the rules imposed by political authorities.

National politics assumed significance mainly when the federal government threatened the freedom of the web.  The “Declaration” was drafted in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Barlow characterized as an “atrocity,” placing “more restrictive constraints on the conversation in Cyberspace than presently exist in the Senate cafeteria.”  The anti-regulation reflex endured for many years thereafter, and may not yet be dead.  Cyber-citizens almost destroyed Godaddy, and forced the company to reverse its position, for initially supporting the Stop Piracy Act of 2012.

Otherwise, parading partisan obsessions was considered revolting manners in the civilization of the Mind.


How was conflict to be dealt with in Cyberspace?  That, of course, in cruel reality, has turned out to be the tragic flaw of the virtual world.  Everyone screams and rants.  That is the normal tone of discourse.  Everyone is angry at someone.  There’s a roar of enraged demands for retractions, apologies, humiliations, firings, even assassinations.  We “of the future” know this now, but one would expect the first digital frontiersmen, in their search for utopia, to provide the means to manage violence in an untamed environment.

It clearly wouldn’t be the US government.  Nor would it be the Wikipedia model of adjudication by an “administrator” class.  That is still top-down governance, however gently enforced.  Cyber-citizens, Barlow asserted, could never have, and would never want, a cyber-government.

Though I haven’t seen the answer spelled out, I feel reasonably certain of what it would sound like.  The digital frontier didn’t need a federal marshal or a local posse to keep the peace.  It had no use for judges or adjudicators.  To be consistent with the primacy of personal freedom, social order would have to rely on a code of personal behavior:  in a sense, on manners.

“Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means.  We are forming our own Social Contract,” wrote Barlow in the “Declaration.”  He added:  “The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.”  The vision of Cyberspace as a vast and empty region enters strongly into this.  Pioneers are encouraged to live out their beliefs, “no matter how singular.”  When beliefs collide, and the conflict is irreconcilable, a true individualist is expected to walk away, leaving others to the consequences of their beliefs.

A whole book of manners in the face of conflict can be inferred from Barlow’s “Principles of Adult Behavior.”

Vigorous, foul-mouthed debate is acceptable.  Any attempt at compulsion is an abomination.  That a mob of cyber-citizens should seek to punish an individual for his beliefs about, say, homosexuality, would have appalled the utopian fathers of the web.

We may flatter ourselves into thinking that these idealists were hopelessly naïve – that we, who have the benefit of hindsight, are sadder but wiser.  The web, as all can see, resembles the state of nature more than utopia.

I favor a somewhat different explanation.  According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the American frontier was “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”  At any moment, in any given place, the needle could move in either direction – a fluidity exploited in Western films like “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  For a techno-utopian like Barlow, the new digital environment, like the old frontier, presented a series of dangers, adventures, and opportunities to be confronted at the individual level:  a test of character.

So far, on the evidence, we are failing the test.

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The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth”

With Elites and With the Truth, It’s Complicated

Three years ago I remarked that the public was engaged in a messy divorce from the elites who run the great institutions of the industrial age.  That bit of scandal is by now notorious.  The elites, with more to lose, have come to regard the intrusive public as little better than a barbarian horde.  They know that a complex society can’t be managed without expertise, and long to return to a past in which the expert’s dictates went unquestioned.  Their watchword is “resistance,” but their dream is reaction.

The public, however, has so far proved irresistible, and the breach appears irreconcilable.  Established institutions, the political process, the economy, “the system,” all look to the public suspiciously like a lottery rigged in favor of the perpetual winners:  a class of insiders who manage to be both self-righteous and self-serving, arrogant and failed.  The terms of the divorce would send the lot of them packing.  This attitude is being called “populism” – a fraught word, rarely used by the populists themselves, connoting a politics of anger and negation played out on a minimalist ideological stage.  You can have populists of the right, like Donald Trump, or of the left, like Bernie Sanders.  What brings them together is a determination to do away with the present order of things, and an indifference to what comes after.

But something even stranger is going on.  We are told, by impeccable sources, that the public is experiencing a traumatic rupture with the truth.  The post-election panic over “fake news” has hardened into a theory of universal self-deception.  The public has somehow slipped out of touch with reality and ushered in a “post-truth” era.   Blame has been placed on social media, the news media, politicians, even on the troublesome public itself:  but the consensus view is that that ours is a moment of deep moral and cognitive confusion.  “Blatant lies,” one observer claims, have become “routine across society,” so that “politicians can lie without condemnation,” while according to another report facts are now dismissed when felt to be “negative,” “pessimistic,” or “unpatriotic.”

I find it interesting that every corner of our dismal political landscape is happy with this proposition.  For liberals, “post-truth” is the only possible explanation for Donald Trump’s somersault to the presidency.  At some point, liberals believe, fake news metastasized into false consciousness:  hence Trump.  For conservatives and libertarians, the phrase aptly describes an information environment dominated by the liberal news media and entertainment industry.  The main difference between “pre-truth” and the present, conservatives maintain, is that the other side is now bringing up the subject.

So here we have the public stumbling into two terrible relationships – with the elites and with the truth – at the same time.  The obvious question is why.

The answer, of course, is that the two relationships happen to be one and the same.

The Crisis of Authority and the Bonfire of the Narratives

The revolt of the public assumes that elites deal mainly in power and money.  That is a prejudice of our materialistic age.  In a healthy society, the supreme task of the elites is to elucidate the master narratives binding together the regions, classes, and ideologies that make up a modern nation.  At Gettysburg, for example, Lincoln conjured the potent magic of the words of the Declaration of Independence:  “all men are created equal.”  Those words, he asserted, were the “proposition” to which our country was “dedicated.”  If he was right, then slavery was a cruel violation of the American scheme.  A century later, speaking in front of Lincoln’s temple in Washington DC, Martin Luther King would return to the story of the Declaration:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  If that was true, Jim Crow became untenable.

The great shared narratives unfold in a space dominated by moral principle far more than political advocacy.  Biblical and pseudo-biblical language is often deployed, even in our disbelieving age.  Rhetorical success – as Jonathan Haidt has shown – involves the use of parables and metaphors rather than mathematical analysis.  Thus if Saddam Hussein is Hitler, he has to be stopped at all costs.  But if Iraq is Vietnam, the US should never get bogged down in that quagmire.

At the human level, narratives serve as connecting tissue between elites and ordinary people.  All of us, high and low, turn to the same sources when we decide what it means to be, say, a “boss” or an “employee” in the context of being an “American.”  Disputes over principle and policy are inevitable, and can be fierce, but will be constrained within the boundaries of an account that is morally intelligible to the public at large.  In this way, the chaotic swirl of events gets compressed into a field of common understanding:  what might be called a shared truth about the world that informs both personal attitudes and political action.

All of that is gone with the wind.  The digital age has proved to be an extinction event for long-standing narratives.  As the public has gained access to information and communication platforms, elites have progressively lost the ability to mediate between events and the old shared stories.  Elite omissions and evasions, falsehoods and failures, are now out in the open for all to see.  The mirror in which we found ourselves reflected in the world has shattered.

No established authority remains to settle questions of fact.  In that sense, the interpretation of reality is up for grabs.

A World in Pieces and the Flight to Symbolism

The mirror is broken, and the great narratives are fracturing into shards.  What passes for authority is devolving to the political war-band and the online mob – that is, to the shock troops of populism left and right.  In these single-minded groups the pressure is intense to redefine reality into a sectarian morality play, particularly with regard to the enemy.  For a feminist true believer, the seemingly placid American campus is a vast crime scene of rape and abuse.  To a Tea Party zealot, the clumsy interventions of modern government resemble the murderous tyranny of a Caligula.   Events are perceived symbolically, almost cinematically – think V for Vendetta – so that evil, in its most monstrous forms, is invariably shown to be in command.

Examples of the enemy’s depravity are a cause for rejoicing.   They justify the fevered existence of the war-band.  Wild accusations get trumpeted by factional media like Jezebel or Breibart, and are often picked up by mainstream news.

Here, I believe, is the source of that feeling of unreality or “post-truth” so prevalent today.  Having lost faith in authority, the public has migrated to the broken pieces of the narratives, shards of reality inaccessible to all but a chosen few.  Scattered and orphaned, it has sought to cobble together a transcendent truth out of pure will and a very subjective longing for justice and redemption.  Truth now has an inside and an outside.  The initiated understand the symbolic code.  Those outside the tribal patch, however, appear to speak nonsense:  they are blatant liars, raving lunatics.  Hence Selena Zito’s famous judgment that Trump’s followers take him “seriously but not literally,” while his antagonists reverse the terms of the equation.

The president, as I noted, has been the object of much of the talk about “post-truth” – and not without justification.  While, so far, his actions in office have been surprisingly conventional, his rhetorical style is something else.  When he speaks of voter fraud, of the size of his crowds, of the unemployment and murder rates, and on many other topics, Donald Trump can’t resist the urge to bend reality to his theme.  The world, it appears, assumes whatever shape he wills.  As might be expected, his opponents have condemned him as a deliberate liar.  Let me put forward another thesis, one I consider more probable but no less problematic.  The president may just be a creature of our shattered age:  he speaks, symbolically and subjectively, to the chosen who take him seriously (but not literally), from inside a shard of Trumpian truth.

It’s only fair to say that this malady is most virulent among those who most deeply loathe President Trump.  “Social justice warriors” have fortified their subjective sliver of the world into a “new religion,” according to Haidt.  These young people, weaned on smart phones and the web, share an exaggerated narrative about oppression in the US, and wish to purify our society until only their transcendent truth is fit for polite talk.  Deviant perspectives, even in history or literature, make them feel frightened and angry.  The response is to hide in “safe spaces” or to shut down the offending speaker.  Since Trump’s election, the “warriors” have resorted to violence to silence Republican and conservative opinions.  In their actions I discern the possibility of a bleakly illiberal future, in which national narratives are thrown into the bonfire without regret, and the war-bands impose their claustrophobic visions by means of threat and fear.

The Collapse and Indispensability of Elites

The recovery of truth requires the restoration of trusted authority.  At the moment, that is nowhere in sight.  The narratives that bind us together have broken to pieces.  The elites who were keepers of these stories have lost the public’s confidence past any hope of redemption.  They strike poses of mastery and control, yet deliver mostly failure and decadence.  The public has judged them to be empty vessels, and many of them, in their secret moments, would probably agree.  I don’t deal in prophecy, but I find it hard to see how this elite class can endure as a cohesive group into the middle age of the Millennial generation.

Let’s grant that the divorce gets finalized.  What comes next?

Maybe chaos.  Complex systems can fall into turbulence and remain in that condition permanently.  The collapse of elite authority could ignite a rolling conflagration, in which every aspect of social and political life is turned into a battleground.  That would be the nihilist’s hour.  If it ever arrives, even the broken shards of narratives will appear too big, too inclusive for an atomized culture, and our supposed “age of post-truth” will be considered, in hindsight, as a time of supreme self-confidence and certainty.

My guess is that American institutions, and the narratives that sustain them, are adaptable enough to survive the crisis.  On the far end of the turbulence, the system will be reconstituted along somewhat different lines.  It is impossible from here to predict the character of the new organizing principles – but it’s safe to say that the radical egalitarianism favored by anti-establishment movements will not be among them.  Authority will not devolve from the elites to the public.  This for a simple reason:  the public doesn’t really exist.  The word signifies a divided and unstructured mass of opinion, a bottom-up surge of contradictory repudiations, a war of the war-bands:  any claim to authority by any part will be demolished by the rest.  Stable interpretations of reality seldom arise from a free-for-all.

I feel reasonably certain, in any case, that the public has no interest in taking on such responsibilities.

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.

So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.

If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.

Elites as ‘Exemplars’ and the Impulse to Hierarchy

How does one group replace another at the top of the pyramid?  Analysis of social change is burdened with many preconceptions regarding economic determinism, the rights of minority groups, the rise and fall of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, and so forth.  Rather than take a stand on these weighty topics, I prefer to start with a simpler problem.

How is a legitimate hierarchy formed?

The great Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset would respond:  Quite naturally.  In every group and walk of life, Ortega observed, there are individuals who appear admirable to the rest.  By the rightness of their actions and expressions, these individuals become “exemplars” – they are “selected” by the majority as models of humanity.  This is not a matter of fashion or passing trends.  In all that counts, it’s a reorientation in the depths.  The highest conceptions of public and private life are manifested in living persons, not abstract principles.  The many who hope to better their lot aspire to be like these superior few.

In the world according to José Ortega y Gasset, hierarchy arises out of a natural impulse for self-improvement, and is legitimate when, in a very interesting way, it is “selected.”

He held the process to be the driving force of history.  The “reciprocal action between the masses and select minorities,” he wrote, is “the fundamental fact of every society and the agent of its evolution for good or evil.”  Ortega’s “masses” we now call the public.  “Select minorities” are the admirable few:  elites who, at their best, lavish their creative energies on the effort to sustain and enrich the fabric of contemporary life.  They are truly superior artists and technologists, preachers and politicians.

In the right relation between elites and the public, the former act as exemplars to the latter.  They embody and live out the master narratives.  (George Washington returning to his farm after the Revolution is a striking example.)  The quality that sets elites apart – that imparts authority to their actions and expressions – isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness.  It’s integrity in life and work.  A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw the public toward them purely by the force of their example.  Without compulsion, the bottom aspires to resemble the top, not superficially but fundamentally, because it wishes to partake of superior models of doing or being.  The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection.”

In a sickly society, conversely, elites fear the public and seek to flatter and deceive it – they display popular tastes and attitudes, then barricade themselves behind a wall of bodyguards and metal-detecting machines.

The Recovery of Authority and the Search for New Elites

Relations between top and bottom, Ortega insisted, were “reciprocal.”  Elites are in some sense selected by the public.  If we were to ask how that selection works, Ortega would reply:  “By aspiration.”  When elites fail the test of exemplarity – when, as is the case today, they repel rather than attract – they are un-selected.  They are stripped of legitimacy and authority.  A vacuum is created that strange new types seek to fill.  As Donald Trump’s teleportation from reality TV to the White House shows, the change can occur with astonishing rapidity.

President Trump, however, is a prisoner of the public’s repudiations, of the attempt to impose a pleasingly narrow symbolic framework on unpleasant reality.  The president, I said above, perceives the world from a fractured place.  He is not the one we have been waiting for.  Legitimacy necessarily depends on a shared interpretation of events – and to be shared, to be perceived equally by contradictory perspectives, a story must go light on the symbolic and the subjective in favor of the empirical and the concrete.

To the extent that Ortega’s diagnosis fits the symptoms of our present malady, it indicates the way to the cure.

As members of the public, we are not helpless.  We retain the power to select and un-select, and we wield that power constantly – not only in our votes and political donations, but in the books we read, the television we watch, the performances we attend, the products we purchase.  We can replace a failed elite class with another that is worthier of our aspirations.  Fundamental change is possible, and can come peacefully and quickly.  That’s the good news.

The great question is where and how to find a “select minority” that embodies honesty in life and work, and draws the public, by force of example, toward that virtue.  According to the terms of Ortega’s analysis, until that connection is made we must expect the clash of partial creeds – and its consequence, the “age of post-truth” – to linger destructively among us.

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